Want Happiness? Buy Experiences, Not Things, Says a Cornell Psychologist

Studies confirm that having experiences makes us happier than material possessions.

Happiness can mean very different things to different people. How to achieve it is a lifelong question for most of us. Our religions and politics offer their own prescriptions. But what does science have to say about it?


Psychology Professor Thomas Gilovich from Cornell University has made four studies on the subject over decades and came to the conclusion that happiness is derived from experiences, not things.

In particular, Gilovich focused on the purchases people make, comparing how they felt spending money on material posessions versus experiential purchases. He found that people were ultimately much happier as a result of experiences.

"People often think spending money on an experience is not as wise an investment as spending it on a material possession," explained Gilovich. "They think the experience will come and go in a flash, and they'll be left with little compared to owning an item. But in reality we remember experiences long afterward, while we soon become used to our possessions. At the same time, we also enjoy the anticipation of having an experience more than the anticipation of owning a possession."

In fact, the anticipation of an experience can be much more pleasurable than waiting for a material possession. You can be excited about getting a new car but unless you're a real gearhead, chances are you are more excited about the places you can go in that car and the way people will look at you being in that car. 

Gilovich's 2014 study found that experiences are the glue of our social lives, mattering much more than the latest i-gadget because:

- Experiential purchases enhance social relations more readily and effectively than material goods

- Experiential purchases form a bigger part of a person's identity

- Experiential purchases are evaluated more on their own terms and evoke fewer social comparisons than material purchases. 

Why do material posessions not give us so much joy?

Gilovich explains:

"One of the enemies of happiness is adaptation. We buy things to make us happy, and we succeed. But only for a while. New things are exciting to us at first, but then we adapt to them."

A 2012 study by Gilovich described how people tend to have more regrets over inaction for experiences than for posessions. You regret more not going to a concert with friends than not buying a new table.

One big reason for why experiences matter more to us than material objects is that they are inherently social. You usually have an experience with friends or family. That makes them so much more valuable. Experiences also commonly result in storytelling and conversation and, certainly, countless Facebook posts of your vacations photos. 

As Amit Kumar, a graduate student who worked with Gilovich said to the Atlantic:

"Turns out people don't like hearing about other people's possessions very much, but they do like hearing about that time you saw Vampire Weekend."

Experiences also reflect more of who we really are. They are closer to our inner selves as we are, according to Gilovich, "the sum total of all our experiences." And as such, when they are shared, experiences allow us to get closer to others in a way impossible with inanimate objects that we can buy.

As we march forward as a society, collectively pursuing happiness, it would make sense for us to consider what that happiness can be. A society that works more and more hours and has less time for leisure and experiences, is not likely to be happy.

Time to hit the road and do something memorable?

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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